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Perjury

Publication Date: 
February 27, 2009
Source: 
PBS - Forum with Michael Krasny
Author: 
Dave Iverson

Professor Deborah L. Rhode is interviewed on Forum with Michael Krasny regarding the Barry Bonds perjury trial:

Iverson: Barry Bonds goes on trial Monday. And what he goes on trial for is what we’re going to talk about this hour. No, not a show about steroids, about perjury. Bonds is charged with 10 counts of perjury, one count of obstruction of justice. But he’s far from the only public person in recent years whose careers have careened off course after being accused of lying to the powers that be. It is of course what got President Clinton impeached; it’s what got Martha Stewart out of the kitchen and into the pokey.

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What is perjury exactly? How hard is it to prove? Is it really a crime that threatens the public or is it sometimes a fallback for pros when they can’t file the charges they might like? That’s our topic this hour – perjury and its significance for our judicial system.

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Deborah Rhode joins us as well, she is Professor of Law at Stanford University, she also served as special counsel to the judiciary committee during the Clinton impeachment hearings, and she is director of the Center on the Legal Profession at Stanford.

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Deborah Rhode, is the reason why this is important, why perjury is a crime that is pushed and prosecuted, because it gets at the way the judicial system works?

Rhode: I think that’s part of it. It’s obviously enormously corrosive to any system of justice or legislative investigation and the more high profile the case and the more in your face the failure to cooperate fully and candidly appears, so there’s an enormous interest in high visibility cases and really ensuring you’re going to get truthful testimony

One footnote to what Peter said is that the other requirement for perjury is that it has to be material. In some cases at least, most notoriously in the Clinton perjury example, with the questions about sex, there was some real discussion on whether he should have been asked those questions in the first instance and whether they were material to the proceeding as it should have been construed. Law professors had a field day over the extent to which his answers qualified technically speaking as perjury. In the cases you just mentioned, ranging from Martha Stewart to Bonds, those issues aren’t clear. It’s obvious that what is at stake here are material statements. Prosecutors who are selective in their use of the perjury prosecutions really generally do hone in on issues that are significant, where they have a pretty open and shut case on the perjury, but where the underlying facts would be much more problematic. So for example in the Bonds case, you have chain of custody issues, or inadmissible evidence in wiretap proceedings or other explanations like that. So perjury becomes the fall back, it’s easier to prove and it accomplishes some of the same deterrent functions as prosecuting on the underlying offense would.